The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event: On Shitting, or the ethics of self-emptying

Given the demands of thinking from immanence, Dubilet tells us that this is a book of ethics in so much as it is a book about anything at all. It is a book about the impact of a metaphysical claim, that proclaiming immanence, and the affective demands of that claim upon subjects. We should call this ethics. It is already interesting enough that he distinguishes this kenotic ethics from the ethics of alterity (indexed by the name Levinas) and the ethics of self-cultivation (indexed by the name Foucault), but let’s take as given that the ethics put forward in The Self-Emptying Subject is more adequate to an immanent form of thinking. I, sharing much in common with Alex’s theoretical orientation, agree that it is, but it is because of that agreement that I want to ask a harder question of this book, as a way of asking interrogating not only his thought but the thought that is common to us. Namely I am interested in what this kenotic ethics looks like, since in a certain sense, ethics shouldn’t be necessary within immanence at all. For within immanence there is equality, indistinction, an impersonal and common life or what Alex also calls a “univocal vitalism of nothingness (72).” So why is there something rather than nothing? Moreover, why are there all of these somethings, rather than nothing? Why is there a call at all to the “universality of communization (57)” that resists abstraction? (On these points I have been challenged in my thinking by Marika Rose, both in conversation and in her forthcoming A Theology of Failure: Žižek against Christian Innocence.) To get at this question more fully we must think about shitting.

Imagine a small child in the midst of their subject development having their mother put the fear into them. Not the fear of the Lord, but the fear of the toilet. If Freud is correct in his psychoanalytic reconstruction of our childhood relation to our assholes, there is a certain childish joy in holding our shit inside and deciding when o let it go. This joy is utterly worldly, it has a why, and it is part of the development out of infancy to childhood. No longer do we simply shit ourselves and wait for someone, usually our mother, to come clean it off of us, but we become the masters of our shit in deciding when and where it happens. At this point in our development—though I am not concerned with hewing too closely to the exact details of Freud’s theory here—it becomes embarrassing if we were to shit ourselves. More than that it is shameful. If you were to shit yourself as an 8-year old, instead of going to the toilet like a normal child, you would be subject to an interpellation by your peers that might rival, if not prefigure, what Althusser describes between a cop and someone on the street.

Yet, the social demands regarding shitting don’t end when we form a “healthy relationship” to the toilet. Let’s take the mother who puts the fear of the toilet into her child. Perhaps through the subject creation that is gender or perhaps through some other vagaries, as an adult she is freaked out by the toilet. She doesn’t use any toilet outside of her home and teaches her child to do the same, even when away for a week at summer camp. She both fears the germs in the public toilet and her shit being noticed by the public. Now so does her child.

So is this a moment of resistance to kenosis or is it in itself a kenotic act? It depends upon the subject or upon the conceptual grammar that kenosis is thought through. The mother has access to property, however relative that is through the heteronormative gender relation. When she seeks to avoid shitting in the toilet at work she can take her lunch break and drive home, to her toilet. In this way, the mother has control and by practicing control both avoids the interpellation of the toilet and also masters her self. The child does not have this agency. They must simply hold it. Which in a way can become a kenotic act as it threatens to rupture the self the way that our bodies in pain disrupts and may even destroy our subjectivity. I could imagine Bataille here in the position of the two button meme. On the one hand, to debase oneself is the kenotic act, so the descent back into childhood scatology is closer to kenosis than holding it in. Yet, the pain of holding your shit in becomes the sort of intense and ultimately dangerous pain that verges on the rupture of the self, of the inbreaking of the divine.

Here we are close to the problem identified in our introduction, that is why is there a need for ethics at all. For, I have to wonder about the ultimate usefulness of Bataille for the kind of kenotic ethics that Dubilet wants to develop. For in Bataille ethics becomes story and in this way becomes subject to a kind of transcendence. Dubilet tells us that Bataille is interested in a schema of thought that distinguishes between those that justify life and thought by subjecting them to to transcendance and those that affirm their immanence and thus their fundamental uselessness (150). Dubilet deploys this as part of his general attack on simplistic distinctions between philosophy and theology or the religious and the secular (an attack that I am supportive of), but it is also an ethical act in itself. Ethics is about evaluation, at least in the Deleuzian-Spinozist framework. Such evaluation in itself becomes a matter of theoretical concern and importance, which Deleuze at one point subjects to the eternal return of the same as an ethical categorical imperative, but within Bataille is it not a question of difference, of identity through difference? Even the story of the divine as that which dissolves everything is a kind of decision for a sad affect over a happy affect.

Bataille feels to me like he makes the quintessential error of ascribing a story to what is without a name. Sacrifice is valued over anything else, for example. Why? We might ask if it is really true that in sacrifice there is an impersonal immanence (158). There is, after all, a story not told by the one sacrificed because they are not the ones who decide. (I take this to be Steven’s point in his post.) When we begin to think of this difference in story-telling we seem to be at odds with the way loss is defined as not generative, according to Bataille (169). Yet, loss is very much generative within the cultural logics of sacrifice. It remakes the community. So why look to it? Why be seduced by that story? To continue on with this thought, consider the relationship between the one who seeks their desubjectivation through some kind of “death”. To achieve that death they may in fact dissolve into nothing, they may indeed “lose themselves,” but they can only bring that about by a relation. They have to cast someone as “strong” as “killer”. This is, as I understand it via Rose’s reading, the critique of Bataille given by Žižek. Transgression requires the law and thus the process of desubjectivation, or kenosis, depends upon the story that once again imposes a kind of transcendence of difference. We could perhaps think about a kind of final end, we are, after all, living in the last days, but that’s still seems to me to be a confusion of how temporality can be conceived immanently. For what does it matter, except that nothing matters.

So much more could be said about shitting when we move from Bataille’s end to what precedes that end. Shitting is but one way we might conceive of the creation of the universe by the One. God shits the universe. In so far as the universe is understood within a certain understanding of Neoplatonism’s priority of the One over Being, then everything that is produced, including matter, is God’s excess, God’s shit. more could be said about shitting. Such a conception seems necessary in Eckhart, on Dubilet’s reading. Throughout Dubilet’s discussion of Eckhart he relies on the temporal distinction of “preceding”. But this distinction raises a problem within the thinking of immanence. If immanence precedes and exceeds what comes after, then there is something that is being thought which is not immanence. Eckhart, perhaps unlike Batatille, avoids story here because he instead turns to the abstraction available to language when speaking theologically. It would seem then that Eckhart avoids distinction, but in doing so he must still speak in a language which is structured by distinction which leads us to conceive of creation as merely God’s shit. If this is correct, does that mean that Eckhart is unable to conceive of or account for misfortune? Misfortune can be located as the effect of having to speak distinctively when what is is not distinctive. The problem of suffering and misfortune becomes even clearer in Dubilet’s reading of Hegel. The finite in Hegel must be annihilated and it is suggested that this has to do with the way in which it “ultimately produces suffering, disremption, and longing as its lot (125).” Is there not suffering in the infinite? Can this erasure of suffering avoid becoming the theodicy of immanence?

Perhaps I am echoing Steven again here in ending on these questions, but when Dubilet writes “What has an external principle, a creator, or a hierarchical authority does not live (85),” what does that do to the possibility for an immanent response to misfortune or suffering? “The quest of negativity only reveals the truth of being laid bare without dissimulation (169).” Does the thinking of immanence require the end of dissimulation? Does it deprive those who are subjects (in some worldly sense) of an escape or hiddenness? Does this ethics of self-emptying require that we show our shit? Or does it require that we declare ourselves shit? Or that we simply sit in the shit? Or is it a matter of not making everyone else deal with our shit?

One thought on “The Self-Emptying Subject Book Event: On Shitting, or the ethics of self-emptying

  1. Off topic (sorry), but speaking of book events — what happened to Brad’s yearly wrap-up? After Alone stopped blogging, that was pretty much *the* one blog post I looked for every year.

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